Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Episode Six: Guest – ****
Part One: Nora
Again, we step away from the main plot to focus on one character — in this instance, Nora. We’ve seen Nora many times in the previous episodes, but only glimpses. She lost her husband and two kids in the event, she carries a handgun in her purse, her brother is Matt, her parents died in a fire, she went to high school in this town, her husband cheated on her with her kids’ preschool teacher, and her job involves going to the houses of people who’ve lost family members and asking them survey questions. She flirts with Kevin a little, but that’s about the entirety of the impact she’s personally had on the overall plot.
I mentioned earlier that I find Nora an interesting person from her setup. This episode is all about fulfilling that early assessment.
The episode opens with a montage of events featuring almost no dialogue where Nora, after passively menacing the woman who slept with her husband, buys breakfast foods at the grocery store to replace the uneaten foods in her house. She buys the same kids’ cereal, the same eggs, the same milk, the same chocolate mix. She does not replace the half-opened applesauce. The reminders of her family are everywhere in her ominously empty house, and she makes an effort to keep up the appearance of normalcy. She doesn’t need to buy these foods, and she could easily go without throwing away the dry goods like the cereal, but she needs the trips to the grocery store otherwise their absence will weigh on her even more.
At the end of the day, she hires a prostitute to shoot her while she wears a Kevlar vest.
The introduction for this episode is one of the best in the series. It conveys a wealth of character in mere moments and is genuinely heartbreaking. Nora becomes one of the most nuanced characters in the series through a mix of relatable but strange behaviors. While some of her actions are reminiscent of other filmic depictions of grief (the prostitute scene mirrors a similar moment in Memento, for instance), the totality of them is unique enough that the sequence seems unique to this series.
The rest of the episode follows Nora as she attends a conference in New York about research into the disappearances. Though a similar style, we see Nora struggle with her identity and the desire to go unnoticed, the paranoia she feels whenever around strangers, and how she responds to incomprehensible obstacles. She tries on a few different hats, eventually coming into her own and reclaiming her name (in a very literal way) when her brief foray into anonymity dissatisfies her.
Part Two: Dolls and Drugs
When Nora arrives at the conference, she finds that her name tag is missing and panics, thinking someone at the conference is trying to impersonate her. She spots a shady figure at a talk and confronts her, only to find the person is a former acquaintance whom she berated at a previous conference. While heading back up to her room, an elevator full of raucous conference-goers invites her to a party and she decides to go up with them.
The party serves as a significant turning point for Nora during the conference. None of the people there know her name, calling her “Guest” as her substitute name tag says. They don’t even know that she’s a legacy (someone who lost family members during the event), and when they begin to complain about legacies to her, she doesn’t correct them. Nora is, for the first time in her life, freed from the burden of pity. She joins in the jokes, takes mystery drugs with them, and enjoys herself. The particular man who invited her hits on her and shows her his line of work — he creates artificial bodies for people who have lost family members to bury.
It’s a bizarre night in which Nora sees the unempathetic selfishness of people who, unlike her, have only a distant connection to the event. They see it as a strange, tragic phenomenon that is at worst an inconvenience and at best an opportunity for exploitation.
And Nora doesn’t necessarily reject this viewpoint when confronted with it. It’s a lot lighter than her own situation, certainly. She longs to move on from her past life and just be generally happier. Her job, her home, and her tenuous relationships with the few people she has left all keep her running in place, unable to find any sort of peace. However, the party is still clearly not her scene. She’s visibly disturbed by their comments and actions, and only goes along to maintain her anonymity.
Eventually, she wakes up in her own room to the hotel’s security pounding at her door. They kick her out just hours before she’s set to give her own talk for the conference, citing her breaking a mirror in the bar and breaking contract with the hotel as the reason. Nora is understandably disturbed by the accusations as she wasn’t even in the bar — or, at least, doesn’t remember being there — and pleads her case to the guards to no avail. Remembering the missing name tag, she suspects someone at the conference is trying to sabotage her. From the audience’s perspective, there’s a lot of ambiguity as to whether her suspicions are founded or merely a cover for her inebriated actions at the party.
Undeterred, Nora prepares for her talk in a public restroom and has a printing store make her a fake ID for the conference. After some hassle, she gets in and finds a stranger speaking in her stead. The fake Nora is arrested and Nora becomes emboldened by her correct intuitions, eventually coming across Wayne and paying him to hug her to “take away her pain.” When she arrives back at home, she buys her own groceries, stops haranguing the preschool teacher, and accepts a date offer from Kevin.
The episode ends on a strong note, but you’ll notice that the last third gets a bit squirrelly. It’s strange to see Wayne again after him being absent for several episodes and not doing much even before then. He speaks some nonsense about Nora wanting and deserving hope, which only seems tangentially related to her problems, if at all. The insidious undertones built up around the character don’t really help the scene — you don’t anticipate anything bad happening to Nora, but it reads as mildly duplicitous all the same, perhaps unintentionally.
The random stranger verifying Nora’s fears is likewise a strange addition. She’s part of a movement in New York that touts conspiracy theories and never comes up again, and her dialogue is pretty grating. I think to some extent the payoff to the mystery of why Nora’s being blamed for the broken mirror is just too unpredictable and silly to mesh with the preceding content, and likewise with the scene involving Wayne. They’re small blemishes to an otherwise solid episode, but they do take up an inordinate amount of the run-time, and that’s a pity.
Part Three: When Your Metaphor Becomes a Bit Too Literal
This episode, perhaps more than any of the others, is heavily concerned with theme. For those keeping count at home, the major themes of the series so far run something like this: grief; emptiness, both emotional and physical; phenomena that is incomprehensible and possibly supernatural; loss of faith; the struggle to find community even when surrounded by others; and the oft-ambiguous boundary between reality and imagination.
This last theme is especially important in this episode. Nora struggles to accept her reality at home, instead opting to delude herself during the day and spend thousands of dollars to feel physical pain in place of emotional pain. Getting shot proves to herself that she’s still alive. At the conference, odd things like her missing name tag create a sense of unease. Nora suspects someone wants to sabotage her, but everyone else gaslights her and her own attempts to prove her concerns turn up fruitless. At the end of the conference, she’s confronted by another person who’s lost several family members, but she accuses him of being fake, of not feeling the sort of pain that she does, and using his tragic circumstance as a selling point for his book.
Reality is often called into question in this series, particularly where the supernatural-seeming phenomena are concerned. Most of the strange things that happen in the story can be interpreted as symbolic or indicative of something else, like a character’s fractured psyche. This particular episode is noteworthy in that it takes a claim about the reality of these things, rather than leaving them ambiguous as the rest of the series has: Nora’s paranoia is founded and the saboteur is real.
I don’t mind the story forcing the characters to confront a reality unlike that which they have anticipated. The saboteur is hardly threatening when exposed, which could be argued a significant reason for Nora’s growth. Confronting her worst fears, she finds that she can deal with them.
However, the story doesn’t seem eager to present its last third with growth in mind. I prefer a character-driven interpretation, but the delivery is too awkward for me to think it intentional. A conspiracy theorist specifically targeting one of the main characters and going unnoticed, planning her actions so that Nora looks like she’s hallucinating? It’s all a bit ridiculous. The plot point has setup and is technically a type of payoff (something the series tends to be very bad at delivering at all most of the time), but the conspiracy theorist clashes tonally with the rest of the episode. Her presence is like the solution to a mystery being the butler did it — we expect the obvious answer to be a red herring. It’s never a good feeling to find out it’s supposed to be the oh-so-clever answer.
I get that this series isn’t really trying to pull the rug out from under its audience. It’s more about empathy and community than trying to keep the audience on their toes. I can become entrenched in a series’ internal components as easily as any other nerd, and I try to view the story as an object first, rather than a vivid world. I don’t know if it’s the best approach, but it helps me appreciate the medium more fully. But attempting to maintain some distance also makes for a different viewing experience. Watching a series with the intent of reviewing it is different from watching it for pure pleasure. I can’t overlook the cracks, and I can’t just dismiss elements that feel unusually artificial.
I like this episode. I think it’s well-done. The story structure and pacing continue the positive trends from the previous two, and Nora is an interesting character to follow. The episode knows how to present her as such. And none of that praise excuses Wayne being underdeveloped and intrusive to the episode’s plot, or the conspiracy theorist weakening the buildup of the mystery within the plot. Those elements, like Tommy’s subplot in the fourth episode, are misplaced. They contributed more than the disparate subplots of the series have in the past, but they’re a long way from good.